– by Sonya Deanna Terry
Late last year, I happened across an old theatre programme in a rarely sorted-through cupboard, and immediately designated the booklet to a file labelled ‘Shows’. The file is ragged now and plump with mementos dating back to 1988. The programme my recent clutter clearing unearthed was quite similar to the others: pages crammed with photos of performers, smiling or open-mouthed, gesticulating flamboyantly against backdrops of faux-marble staircases or painted cities. The difference was that the singers prompted a pang of familiarity, not because they were household names – the 1990 production of Funny Girl had been an amateur one held at The Canberra Theatre – but because many of them had become friends. We’d belonged to an exclusive club that focused on footwork, camaraderie, costume alterations, gruelling rehearsals and after-show cocktail events that brought out the show-off in all who showed up.
On the programme’s fourth page was a black-and-white picture of me amongst the other Ziegfeld Showgirls, a shy nineteen-year-old peering out from glittering plumage, wearing the sort of expression that’s typically worn by chorus singers of zero vocal ability, an expression that spells ‘undetected stowaway’. Flicking further through the programme, I recalled the sixties-composed tunes. In every rehearsal and show, I’d gone silent once the orchestra started up, reminding myself that even pop stars lip-synched. True, they at least mimed their own voices, but at that point in time, pretend-singing hadn’t done Milli Vanilli any harm. It would be two more years before that dastardly duo would descend into infamy.
How, you may be wondering, did I ever get into a musical if I couldn’t even sing? The audition panel gave me a dance solo because of my jazz-ballet and belly dance background and suggested I double up as a showgirl/chorus singer. They’d been looking for dancers with reasonable voices whose ‘physical presence conjured the 1920s’. Who would have thought the small mouth I resented would ever become an asset! As for a ‘reasonable voice’, well, let’s just say I have the angels to thank for the tunelessness of my ‘Happy Birthday’ rendition being politely overlooked.
My 1890s-born grandmother had despaired of her own mouth when young. ‘Too broad,’ she’d said, shaking her blue-rinsed head. I’d been amazed. ‘But big smiles are considered attractive,’ I’d told her. She’d looked down wistfully. ‘Now, perhaps. But not back then. In the twenties, we girls were expected to look like kewpie dolls. It improved once World War II came around. Suddenly all the actresses had victory rolls and enormous grins.’
Thanks to Funny Girl I revisited the era of my grandmother’s youth. Atop the magic carpet of costume, script and song, each of us were transported to the innocent optimism of 1914. In ‘Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’ we marched backwards up a staircase, hoping our golden stilettos wouldn’t stick in the step joins.
Lyricist Bob Merrill’s patriotic lines (‘American boys are all such straight shooters!’ and ‘We’ll take care of him, Mother, when he comes home from the war,’) were designed to echo the propaganda that enticed young men to enlist, and had a discomforting effect on a lot of us. Throughout high school we’d been exposed to horrifying doomsday documentaries that both described nuclear devastation in detail and warned that this was where the Cold War might lead. Some of us had sunk into future-fearing apathy. Some had even suicided. Others had got active in fighting for nuclear disarmament, had roared unashamedly along to the spirited protest songs of that flailing-armed rock star activist whose wildest deeds in more recent years, as our previous Minister for Education, involved shooting goals for Year 3 basketball teams.
Thanks to the threat of World War III and the 1987 AIDS campaigns, pessimism seemed to seep into, and subtly taint, the youthful dreams of Generation X. Few of us could go tenpin bowling without calling up images of the Grim Reaper treating all and sundry like skittles, the theme for a commercial that brought renown to Siimon Reynolds, a 21-year-old advertising exec with a typo for a first-name. The initial hostility of his audiences, many of whom were parents of nightmare sufferers, did not impinge on Reynolds’ rising-star career. He went on to become founder of a marketing and communications company now worth at least $500 million.
The theatre programme threw up one memory after another, the ‘casual shots’ page especially. Here we were sipping Vienna coffees at Gus’, there we were cavorting through autumn leaves.
Ah, Canberra’s ruby-tinted autumn leaves! An event, six years prior to the time of the photo, faintly flitted back. Age fourteen. Trudging alongside a friend through crunchy liquid-amber leaves near the Manuka Cinema. Chattering excitedly about the movie we’d just seen: Back to the Future starring Dolly Magazine pin-up boy, Michael J. Fox, who, throughout those spellbound 116 minutes in his role of time-travelling Marty McFly, transported us into the post-war hopefulness of the 1950s. Fox then had us biting our nails when he returned to 1985 where a scary gang of gun-wielding Libyan nationalists were demanding the return of their nuclear fuel.
The first of two sequels was released in North America on the 20th of November 1989, with an Australian release soon after. Partly set in the year 2015, Back to the Future Part II featured fantastical skateboards that never touched the ground. Since anything might happen in twenty-six years’ time, we teenagers refused to dismiss the idea of hoverboards. We might even be in possession of portable shoe phones by then – like Agent 86 had in the 1960s sitcom ‘Get Smart’ – kept in our pockets though, rather than beneath the sole of one foot, and quite possibly referred to as ‘Smart’ phones. And since we were no longer under the threat of Russia or America pushing that Big Red Button, chances were we would still be alive to enjoy our advanced telecommunication devices, and skating over the clouds. That was if we didn’t all contract HIV first.
AIDS and other grim fears of Generation X were captured aptly in 1994 by the movie Reality Bites starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and a lesser-known Ben Stiller. Resonating with many Generation X-ers was one of Hawke’s lines. Ryder’s character says: ‘I just don’t understand why things just can’t go back to normal at the end of the half hour like on “The Brady Bunch” or something.’ And Hawke’s character replies: ‘Well, ’cause Mr Brady died of AIDS. Things don’t turn out like that.’ Robert Reed, the actor who had played the lovable flare-wearing dad of a sitcom favoured by many Generation X-ers throughout the seventies, had died two years earlier.
A year later, Christopher Reeve (aka Superman) would sustain a cervical spine injury that would paralyse him from the neck down. Back to the Future’s Michael J. Fox had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. On the screen, these actors were invincible. In real life, their humanness and their mortality had become despairingly apparent, and proved to the young and the star-struck that reality did bite at times, and that none of us were ever very far from its jaws.
I closed the theatre programme, pleased my generation’s gloomy expectations were content to remain in the past, and did a quick assessment of the future we’ve all reached. This is the list I came up with:
1 – We’re still alive – and enjoying it.
2 – Michael J. Fox is enjoying being alive, too, having recently starred in ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’, amongst other TV roles.
3 – Our nation is free of the potential perils of the Cold War and to add to this, so far has a thriving economy.
4 – We’re now only a year away from riding on hoverboards. Yee-ha!
5 – The technologies of music, television, movies and the Internet have allowed us choices: we can journey to the past like Marty McFly. Thanks to the sophistication of modern entertainment, we can zoom back to the fifties or the twenties, or to wherever else we choose, and we don’t have to rely on Libyan nuclear fuel to do so.
History is, thankfully, dead, but memory, hope and time-travel are, like us, still very much alive.
Former Canberra resident, Sonya Deanna Terry is a debut novelist, Communications student and rabid theatre-goer. Details of her soon-to-be-released two-volume series Epiphany can be accessed after the 7th of December at: www.EpiphanyTheGolding.com